I enjoy interviews with creative and artistic people, and one of the venues for this is a series called “The Directors” which appears on the Reelz Channel. Normally this series interviews film directors, but this last weekend they had a chance of pace when they interviewed comic book legend Stan Lee. The last question of the interview involved why comic books are so popular, to which Lee responded that in his view it is because they are fairytales for grown ups. He said that when we are children we enjoy fairytales, but then grow up and move beyond them. He thinks comics serve the same function as these stories, and they are so popular because they touch on various archetypes found in classic fairytales. I believe that Lee is correct, but with a few modifications. While graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular with adults, and comics are surely providing some of the best inspiration for Hollywood films, they are still largely the purvue of kids and teenagers in America, unlike in Japan where they are a popular form of adult entertainment. In addition, I’d say that comics do include archetypes, but I’d go a little further and argue that they also include myth, symbol, and folklore. On the latter element, Amanda Carson Banks and Elizabeth E. Wein have argued in an article titled “Folklore and the Comic Book: The Traditional Meets the Popular” for New Directions in Folklore 2 (January 1998) that:
“An analysis of three series published by DC Comics in the early 1990s (Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer) reveals a heavy dependence on traditional folk beliefs in the central story-lines and characterization, as well as in illustration and incidental dialogue. The writers of these series do more than merely borrow ideas from culture or one another, or employ stock motifs and themes in their narratives; they often incorporate themes from folklore and tradition wholesale and unaltered. By examining the use of traditional and contemporary folklore in these series it is possible to see not only the extent and manner to which folklore is utilized, but also how widespread certain folk vocabulary and beliefs are in the contemporary period.”
As the authors near the end of their treatment of this issue they state that, “As a genre that is at root fantasy literature, comic books are a safe and easy place for readers to explore parts of themselves and their sense of spiritualism and search for transcendence.”
From last year’s summer blockbuster, Superman Returns, to this summer’s third installment of Spider-Man, comic book heroes are bringing their pseudo-religious characters to the cinema. Religion experts and observers of pop culture say these superheroes reflect — some more overtly than others — traditional religious archetypes and values in nontraditional settings. Yet the popularity of these heroic figures endures, no matter what media they inhabit. May 25, 2007, marked 30 years since the first Star Wars movie introduced Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and company. The series and its spinoffs have generated an estimated $20 billion in revenue, a figure that is likely to increase amid the anniversary hoopla.
Why it matters
Anyone tracking the religious currents streaming through American life cannot limit that search to institutional faith. Experts largely agree that many Americans — especially young people — who shun traditional expressions of faith are attracted to religious messages and symbols, most often in popular culture. Those symbols and messages are perhaps most overt in the superhero figures who are migrating from comic books to movies and television. Some experts see in many of the explicitly American superheroes a mixture of the patriotic and religious symbols that reveal the persistence of a “civil religion” in the United States.
It would appear that comic books provide a number of opportunities for engagement and enjoyment, from entertainment to scholarly study from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, including folklore, popular culture, and religious studies.